Over the last few months, I’ve seen a lot of talk about safety. It’s important to keep everybody safe. We especially need to keep those in vulnerable groups safe. But not many people have been thinking about what safety actually is, or putting it in context. I thought it might be helpful to think a little about safety from a Christian perspective, and then look at how that might apply in our churches and communities.
Biblical principles of safety
We should take safety seriously
When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.Deuteronomy 22:8
The book of Deuteronomy contains various practical laws, such as this one. Obviously it was written for a people who lived in a hot climate, where flat roofs were the norm! But I think the principle here is a good one. If you are building a house, then you should consider safety. If you don’t, then if something bad happens the guilt will be yours. And that’s no small matter – you would be guilty of bloodshed.
The point to take away from this it’s not just right but essential to take reasonable precautions. They flow from the second greatest commandment – to love our neighbour. Loving our neighbour means protecting them where possible. Failing in this duty is a serious business.
We should quarantine the sick
‘Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.Leviticus 13:45-46
Another law from the Old Testament. There is a whole section in Leviticus about ‘defiling diseases’, diseases which could spread through a community. If someone caught one of these, they were to isolate. (The ancient Israelites were doing self-isolation before self-isolation was cool.) In fact, quarantining those who are sick with an infectious disease is just common sense.
Now I’m not advocating someone letting their hair be unkempt and shouting out “unclean! unclean!” But the principle of quarantine is sound. If you have symptoms of an infectious disease such as the flu or covid, don’t go out. That’s a sensible precaution, and it’s for the benefit of the community.
There is just one thing to add here: the Bible does not talk about quarantining healthy people. I guess that’s because, if you don’t know who is sick, you would end up quarantining everyone! I think this is a sensible way of looking at things – maybe we can come back to this at a later date.
Safety must be proportionate to enjoying life
Recently in our midweek service, I preached through the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is a fascinating book, if you want to get into it I can thoroughly recommend David Gibson’s book Destiny (“Learning to live by preparing to die”). I was really struck by Ecclesiastes 9:1-12 when it comes to safety.
That passage makes a few points which are relevant:
- “The race is not to the swift” – in other words, the fastest runner doesn’t always win the race. You could also say, the one who takes the most precautions isn’t always safest. “Time and chance happen to them all”
- “No one knows when their hour will come” – dark times can meet all of us, and we don’t know when. We can’t always protect against in, in fact very often we can’t. The hour of our own death is not in our hands.
- So – we should enjoy life: “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.” Death is inevitable, it will happen. Rather than trying to put it off at all costs, we should remember that ultimately it is in God’s hands and seek to enjoy life in the here and now as a gift from him.
The big take away from this passage for me is that it’s pointless to try to prolong our lives at the expense of enjoying our lives. A modern way of putting it would be to say quality of life matters as much or perhaps even more than quantity. Life is there to be enjoyed as a gift from God.
Safety is only found in God
In the Bible, safety is not defined as “no bad things happening”. Safety depends on our relationship with God, ultimately. Over the last few months I’ve been working my way through the Psalms in my Thought for the Week series on Understand the Bible. What struck me is how many of the Psalms were written because David (or whichever Psalmist is writing) is going through a hard time. Just this morning, for example, I read Psalm 3. That starts out:
Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
Does that sound safe to you? It doesn’t to me! But then David goes on:
But you, Lord, are a shield around me,
my glory, the One who lifts my head high.
For David, safety wasn’t about stopping bad things from happening. It was about a confidence and trust in God that he would protect him even through those times. There’s a line in Psalm 112 which I often think of: “They will have no fear of bad news; their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord.” I like it because it assumes that we will get bad news from time to time – but we have no need to fear it. We can trust in the Lord despite everything.
At the end of the day, safety comes from God. Psalm 4:8, “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.”
So – safety is something which transcends our circumstances. Safety is a secure trust that, whatever we do or wherever we go, God is in control and working for our good. Even if bad things happen, they will turn out for good. Even death itself is in God’s hands – all our days are numbered.
We shouldn’t worry
Jesus famously said in Matthew 6:27: “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” We can’t add any time to our lives by worrying. In fact, as Psalm 139 puts it: “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” God has all our days in hand, virus or no virus. Those who believe and trust in Jesus have no need to worry. God will keep us safe. Alec Motyer once put it this way: “With God, there is no such thing as an untimely death.” This is our confidence – that God is the one who decides the day we die, not us or the safety precautions we’ve taken.
For Christians, at the end of the day death has no power over us, and we should not fear it. As Hebrews 2:14-15 puts it:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
We no longer need to fear death or be held in slavery by it.
Better to fear God than be safe
‘I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.Luke 12:4-5
Christians should fear God more than we fear death. Over the years, this has caused many Christians to act in very self-sacrificial and heroic ways. Hebrews 11:37-38 says about some of the heroic people of faith:
They were put to death by stoning; they were sawn in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated – the world was not worthy of them.
These people obeyed God and did not fear death. They were more concerned to do the right thing then to remain safe. Throughout history, Christians have eschewed their own personal safety for acts of love, kindness, and bravery. In times of plague, for example, they might have been the only people who were willing to stay and help the victims. (Richard Turnbull’s lecture for the Christian Institute on plagues and Christian history is worth watching).
Disobedience to God is not safe
One thing which is explicitly named as not being safe in the Bible is disobeying God. For example:
However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you … The Lord will plague you with diseases until he has destroyed you from the land you are entering to possess. The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish.Deuteronomy 28:15, 21-22
So plague is named as one of the things which God could bring upon the Israelites as a result of their disobedience. Several times in the Old Testament God sends a plague upon the people for their sin (e.g. Numbers 16).
Traditionally, plague has been seen by the church as a sign of God’s judgement and displeasure. The Book of Common Prayer, for example, contains this prayer to be said “in the time of any common plague or sickness”:
O ALMIGHTY God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of king David, didst slay with the plague of pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest: Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Drawing it all together
Safety is a Biblical concept. I think it’s right to be concerned about it, as we saw with the laws from the Old Testament. We have a duty of care to each other. It’s also right to take sensible precautions like quarantining the sick. However, the precautions we take should not be so extreme they stop us from living and enjoying life in the way God wants us to.
Ultimately, safety is something that can only go so far: we may think we are safe and secure, but – like the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12) – our lives may be demanded of us. Our safety is found ultimately in Christ, and in fact however ‘safe’ we may be, it is never safe to be disobedient to God.
So, what should our response to covid be in society and in the church?
We know that it’s important to take precautions. At the same time, we know it’s possible to be over-cautious. Quality of life is important. There is a sensible ‘middle ground’ which isn’t going too far either way.
Here’s the question: what IS being too cautious or too reckless? I’ve been going on too long now so that will have to wait for another time. But I think what we’ve seen here has laid the groundwork for an answer.
In the church
Safety is an important principle, but there are more important things. In particular, where safety conflicts with obedience to God then we must obey God. I would suggest the church needs to look carefully at what it means to sing, worship, have fellowship with each other, and so on. How important we see these things will determine how we should relate them to safety.
The next part of the series is on Truth.